There's a reason American songwriting legend Johnny Cash covered "Solitary Man." It's because Neil Diamond's existential pop song is one of the defining artistic documents of the 20th century. If you think this is hyperbole, go back and listen to it. Better yet, try the 1968 album Velvet Gloves and Spit, which offers jewels like "Shilo," "Two-Bit Manchild" and "A Modern Day Version of Love"--epic, downbeat rock songs that suggest what Diamond might have been had he not slipped into the "safe mode" that plagues far too many successful artists.
After cementing Cash's legacy, producer Rick Rubin now turns his attention to Diamond, a last name that for decades served as shorthand for "cheesy excess." With 12 Songs, Rubin removes any and all stylistic impurities, adding tasteful orchestral and jazz arrangements, and baring Diamond's songwriting prowess for all to see. The delicate plea of opener "Oh Mary" is the one of the most heartfelt and honest things you'll ever hear regarding love's fleetingness.
Diamond paints with large brush strokes, jettisoning imagery and narrative detail in exchange for grandiose statements. Still, every one of these songs hits its target, from the insatiable carnality of "Delirious Love" to the spiritual manifesto of "Man of God." Sure, subjects like love, friendship and God don't have much of a place in a musical landscape saturated with misogyny, posturing and nihilism. But in "Evermore," when Diamond attaches an incredible melody to the desperate line, "Where's the truth we took for granted?" over a soaring string section, you realize that Diamond and Rubin take nothing for granted when it comes to creating great art.